SHANGHAI — A local court in southern China this week held a public sentencing of eight migrant laborers involved in a protest over unpaid wages. The court said the sentencing rally would educate the public about the law — but Chinese media and other observers criticized the move, which some said reflected growing tensions resulting from the slowdown in China’s economy. Worker protests, many linked to wage arrears, have increased in China in recent months, as the country grapples with falling export demand — and a slowing of the once buoyant domestic construction industry.

The court in the city of Langzhong, Sichuan province, sentenced the eight construction workers to jail terms of between six and eight months, though two apparently received suspended sentences, according to Chinese media. Newspapers published photos showing the defendants lined up in front of a crowd in what seemed to be a residential district.

They were reported to have been involved in a protest last August, when some 100 workers gathered in front of a local real estate developer’s office, to demand unpaid wages. After failing to make any progress, they then blocked the gate of an unspecified local “tourist attraction,” and several workers subsequently grabbed a local police officer and made him accompany them to the city government to demand redress, the official Global Times reported.

Another Chinese newspaper quoted the court as saying the public sentencing was held to “educate the public about the law,” according to Reuters. However the Global Times said “many” people criticized the court’s action, saying it had shown no respect for the workers’ “personal dignity.” The paper also cited Chinese regulations which, it said, made it “illegal to parade the accused or the convicted through the streets” — though criminals have been paraded in public on occasion in recent years, mainly in cases involving drug crimes or prostitution.

The sentencing hearing was held on same the day China’s Premier Li Keqiang promised to protect the rights of workers, as the country implements a policy of laying off staff in industries hit by overcapacity. China has said that 1.8 million workers may be made redundant in the steel and coal mining sectors alone in the coming years, with as many as five million others also expected to lose their jobs. At his news conference at the closing of China’s annual legislative session Wednesday, Premier Li said: "We must ensure that the rice bowls [guaranteed jobs and wages] of workers are still there, or we must give them new rice bowls." He also announced that the government had set aside 100 billion yuan (around $15.4 billion) to smooth the transition for laid-off workers this year, and he said this sum could be increased.

However, workers in both the steel and coal industries have staged protests in heavy industrial areas of northeast China this week to demonstrate against layoffs and demand unpaid wages. And labor rights groups say China has also seen a growing number of protests at manufacturing and construction companies over the past few months — with the construction industry, which employs many workers on short-term contracts, one of the worst offenders when it comes to unpaid wages. And though the construction sector has shown some signs of rebounding in the past two months, the industry has slowed significantly over the past three years, with some developers closing down or halting new projects.

Before last month’s Chinese New Year festivities, the government called on local officials to ensure that workers did not go unpaid before the holiday, the only time in the year that many rural migrant workers return home to see their families. However, Geoffrey Crothall of Hong Kong-based monitoring group China Labor Bulletin told International Business Times recently that such pressure often has little long-term impact, with employers often flouting labor laws, sometimes with the tacit acceptance of local governments who rely on these businesses for tax revenue and other contributions.

“The basic system is not changing — employers can basically do whatever they want,” he said. “A local government bureaucrat is not going to go out of their way to create problems by telling a factory or a developer that they have to abide by the law, because that factory owner or developer is probably good friends with the mayor or the deputy mayor. ... And they simply don’t have the man power to do it either.”

After Wednesday’s public sentencing, the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper asked whether the event was primarily designed to warn workers against breaking the law — or to protect the interests of employers. It said there was nothing wrong in punishing people who had broken the law, but it said it was not normal to hold the trial in public, and it should have taken place in a court.

The paper added that if the workers had tried to seek redress through legal channels and failed, then “we should ask whether the people who owed them money should not face even greater legal sanction,” and whether local officials should also be held responsible, Shanghai’s Dragon TV reported. The paper said that such public humiliation of workers would “boost the companies that don’t pay them,” and help to cover up the failings of  local bureaucrats, while making it impossible for workers to obtain back pay.

The use of public sentencing comes as rights groups warn the Chinese government is increasingly ignoring legal process as it seeks to rein in a more critical society and cope with the pressures of an economy, which last year saw growth fall to 6.9 percent, its slowest in 25 years. At the just-concluded legislative session, one judge publicly spoke out against another recent tendency — the subjecting of activists, journalists and lawyers who have criticized the government to “trial by television.”

Police have also intervened on a number of occasions to break up protests by workers demanding wages or welfare payments — including this month in southern Guangdong province — and have detained a number of veteran labor rights activists in the region, something critics say reduces the chances of local workers resolving disputes with their employers by peaceful means.